Bonhishikha-unlearn gender: A creative platform to challenge gender stereotypes

Attire always plays a big role in criticizing women, says the founder of the organization 

Women face a myriad of challenges both at home and outdoors due to existing social norms and gender stereotypes in Bangladesh.

Non-profit organization “Bonhishikha – unlearn gender” is dedicated to promoting gender equality in the country. The platform gives the opportunity for people from all walks of life to discuss issues of gender and sexuality, while also advocating for women’s rights and raising awareness of gender-based violence. 

The initial concept of Bonhishikha, inspired by Eve Ensler's “The Vagina Monologues", was formed in 2010. The organization aimed to create a safe space for people to discuss gender issues.

Tasaffy Hossain, founder of Bonhishikha, told Dhaka Tribune: "A few of us were talking about these issues and came up with the idea of creating a platform where youths could share their stories of the stereotypes and prejudices that constrict them, and to unlearn gender in the process.

“There are many issues we do not like to talk about, such as women, the body, pleasure, and violence. By providing a safe space for open discussion on these issues, we can break the barrier in terms of starting the conversation."

She also spoke of how the organization produced their own show based on the “The Vagina Monologues", and the rehearsals themselves became platforms for conversations on gender issues. 

“There were a lot of conversations during the rehearsals where everyone would share their own experiences or what they saw in their surroundings. So, that became a core part of Bonhishika’s preparation. Apart from preparation, we tried to connect ourselves with these stories” said Tasaffy, a development professional and advocate for human and gender rights.

Subsequently, Bonhishikha started compiling the experiences of women growing up in Bangladesh. One of their first compilations was on street harassment. 

The organization’s members asked for stories of sexual harassment on the streets through email and Facebook. 

“We got around 70 stories within a week. We have cases where girls aged five years old and women aged 66 years old were harassed. It breaks the myth that these incidents happen only with a specific age of women. I realized how diverse the experiences were,” said Tasaffy. 

In the story requirements, Bonhishikha specifically asked for location, age and what the victim wore along with the story.  

“Attire always plays a big role in criticizing women,” added the Bonhishikha founder.

Other productions by the platform include “Nari Nokhtoro (It’s a she thing)” and “Men don’t talk". The latter demonstrates issues around masculinity and barriers faced by men in Bangladesh, including domestic violence, sex workers, social adherence, and LGBT rights. 

To increase their advocacy activities, Bonhishikha gradually started organizing meetings, planning sessions, workshops, and human chains.

“We try to provide a place for listening, sharing, and understanding the whole scenario from diverse perspectives and building a support system for each other. This helps show that these are actual issues and people are not alone,” Tasaffy said.

“We are doing theatrical performances and workshops, the idea is that if we talk about these issues then we will get the courage to challenge stereotypes,” she added.

Bonhishikha organizes stage performances almost every year at various universities and other venues. The initiative has so far looked at around 25 issues related to women and men. The main target group is younger people aged 17 to mid-30s.

Being inspired by the work of Bonhishikha, many participants of workshops joined the organization as volunteers. 

Tasaffy said: “It feels good when we see every year the audience number increases. Many people show interest in joining Bonhishikha after the productions. Initially, the initiative had to push organizations to talk about these issues in their periphery, but now many organizations come to our members for sessions on gender issues.”

A four-year program on feminist leadership building will soon be started under the umbrella of Bonhishikha. The organization is also planning to work with youth-based feminist organizations to help their growth and development.